Published November 20, 2014
Peyton Manning has heard it all this season.
It's a "down" year. Age is catching up to him. Something must have caused the worst slump of his pro career.
Turns out, it was all image.
While Manning's quarterback rating did slip this season, he still completed more than 66 percent of his passes, still threw for 4,700 yards and still threw 33 touchdown passes.
"The numbers speak for themselves, and I think anytime you have a guy throw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns, any team would take that," left tackle Charlie Johnson said Tuesday. "It just shows how productive he's been."
In some ways, Manning has been so good over the years that he's a victim of his own success.
Most want to compare Manning's usually impeccable seasons against one another, and using that standard, Manning may never top his record-setting 2004 — 49 TD passes and 4,557 yards, numbers that would have gone even higher had Manning not left games early several times that season.
This year, Manning's mediocre 91.9 passer rating could be evidence of a slide.
But Manning has posted some of the best numbers of his career.
He had career-highs in attempts (679) and yards. His 33 TDs match his second-highest total in a season, and it's the second time he's ever topped 30 TDs in back-to-back seasons. Manning's completion percentage (66.3), while down from 2009's 68.8, still ranks above his career average of 64.9.
And despite throwing 11 interceptions in three games earlier this season, Manning threw 17 picks — one more than he did last season when he won his fourth MVP Award.
"Somebody was asking 'Did you all have a team meeting or did you try to help other guys?'" Manning said, describing how he broke out of the slump. "I was trying to help myself. I thought before I started trying to help other guys do their jobs, I needed to be sure I'm doing my job. I didn't think I was doing my job well enough. I was determined to play better."
Since then, he's thrown nine TDs, two interceptions and gone 4-0.
But what's most impressive is how Manning has done it.
He had virtually no running game for the first 12 weeks and lost All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark, his favorite outlet receiver, with a season-ending wrist injury Oct. 17. Slot receiver Austin Collie has missed most of the last nine games, meaning Manning has had to rely on unheralded guys such as Jacob Tamme and Blair White to do most of the damage.
So Manning adapted.
He threw shorter, quicker passes, which resulted in a noticeable drop in his average per attempt — from 7.68 over his first 12 seasons to 6.92 in 2010.
But the overall results were essentially the same. Manning led the Colts (10-6) to their seventh AFC South title in eight years, tied the NFL record with a ninth consecutive playoff berth and set up a Saturday night wild-card showdown with the Jets.
"I wish it would be a huge factor," Jets coach Rex Ryan said when asked whether the loss of Clark and Collie had an impact on the Colts. "But with Peyton Manning back there, he just throws it to the open guy."
The bigger problem for New York (11-5) is devising a game plan to stop Manning.
In six career meetings, as Ravens defensive coordinator and Jets head coach, Ryan is 1-5 against Manning and 0-2 in the playoffs. The lone victory came in Week 16 last season, when the Colts pulled their starters in the third quarter and gift-wrapped a 29-15 Jets victory.
Ryan is so determined to win this one that he called it "personal."
Manning insists he hadn't heard the comment until Tuesday, the same day Ryan elaborated on what he meant.
"I feel like I owe him," Ryan explained. "He needs to feel what I felt the last two times we played in the playoffs. I can't stand getting beat, and I know the main source of it — it's Peyton Manning."
Because even when it seems Manning isn't playing his best, he still figures out a way to win games.
"I think where a lot of people looked at it and thought he was playing poorly, it wasn't a function of him and him alone," coach Jim Caldwell said. "In our eyes, he wasn't playing as poorly as you all surmise. I think his numbers indicate that he's as productive as anyone else and what he did, was what he always does."